There were no fireworks displays or laser light shows and none of the razzmatazz that accompanied the launch of a certain seven star hotel up the road when the Shangri-La hotel in Abu Dhabi slid quietly and elegantly into the very top end of the luxury holiday market last month. That's not the way they do things in the capital, and anyway, the people they are keen to attract would shy away from such overt shows of extravagance.
When it comes to getting away from it all, the extremely wealthy are as different as they are in all the other aspects of their gilded lives. Not for them the rows and rows of closely packed loungers lined up in front of Atlantis like some sort of sanatorium in the sunshine. While the lush duplexes of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai with their two-storey glamour and full-length mirrors over the king-size beds, might appeal to a certain sector of the high-end traveller, these things can be too in-your-face for others. What they want is privacy and discretion plus round-the-clock service, and, of course, the last word in luxury.
The six villas built at the front of the Shangri-La at Qaryat Al Beri, all individually designed by the South African designer Simon Black, are the perfect retreat for your average tycoon or princeling to relax away from prying eyes as long as they stay inside. Guests staying in ordinary standard rooms at the Shangri La have a good view of anyone having a dip in some of the villas' infinity pools, which is probably why they're all kitted out with curtains that can be drawn if necessary.
Each villa is different, with two very obviously family-style villas, all soft earth colours, creams and greys. Terraces facing the Sheikh Zayed Mosque offer an intimate way of impressing your friends at sunset with a nice glass of something chilled. There are also a couple of distinctly Arabic designs with richer more exotic tones and a further two that can only be described as 'party' houses. They've also all been given the names of Abu Dhabi regions: Al Ain, Al Kazna, Delma, Das Island, Jebel Hafeet and Liwa come with their own kitchens and brushed steel Bosch ovens and fridges that you could live in. Some villas have butler's pantries where the staff can clear up without disturbing the guests. Families can send their maids out to shop for food or use the facilities of the main hotel. It's unlikely that the lady of the house will be slaving over a hot stove on her five-star break but if she was of a mind to cook herself, she would have every conceivable piece of equipment to hand as well as plenty of help with the washing up.
Sheets and pillowcases are made of 800 thread-count linen and the fluffy white bath sheets are huge. You can sit in your bath tub watching a Bang and Olufsen flat screen television or listening to a six-CD hi-fi system. Some of the CD players may look like futuristic black shiny sculptures but the sound can be channelled into every nook and cranny of the villa. You don't even have to get out of bed to alter the mood. A simple gizmo dims the lights with a mere flick of the finger, although you either have to bestir yourself to alter the air-conditioning or summon the butler to do it for you.
The bathrooms are all different, some with sparkling porcelain free-standing baths, others with sunken jacuzzis, and all the showers have a choice of an overhead blast from the power version, or the gentler flow from a smaller shower head preferred by ladies who don't want to get their hair wet. Bulgari and L'Occitane are the choice of toiletries. All villas have Wi-Fi some have a small office for the businessperson who really can't leave it all behind.
Drawers open silently and wardrobes are lit. Leather shoe mitts sit in leather trays waiting to cosset a pair of handmade shoes. Two types of bathrobes, Japanese kimonos and fluffy white towelling hang in the closets. Each room has its own Elsafe for the diamonds and you don't need a degree in engineering to open and close it. The master bedroom in the earth-tones family villa is light and airy. The four-poster with its piles of silk bolsters and cushions has a deep comfy King Koil mattress. A 40-inch television that rotates can be viewed from the bed or the sitting area with its cream marble-topped table and dove grey chenille sofa. Shimmering voiles and textured wallpaper complete the look.
A separate majlis or sitting room for women caters for cultural sensitivities and there are several other comfortable sitting areas upstairs and outside so that guests don't feel crowded. Several villas are equipped with mini cinemas with red velvet banquettes to stretch out on. "The villas are clearly not designed for the mass market," says the general manager Adrian Rudin, who expects them to be used for small business conferences, glamorous parties and luxury car launches as well as for family holidays for the very rich. "It's definitely the high- end market, which is why we haven't done any advertising. It's a mini hotel within the hotel but there is a homey atmosphere about the family villas that are designed to be the last word in comfort."
The two party villas, on the other hand, are most definitely not 'homey'. Bright oranges and reds scream for attention in one villa and much of the artwork seems to have been chosen as witty conversation pieces such as the one featuring leather caps used to train falcons (although with top-of the-range hi-fi systems blasting out, there may not be much conversation, and it will be interesting to see how the neighbours in the family villas react when the Lamborghinis start rolling up for a party).
The other party house, nicknamed 'wet and wild', has been decorated and furnished for the amusement of grown-up party people, featuring gold and silver tiled floors, crushed glass pebbledash wall coatings that make the rooms sparkle, revolving glitterballs and two floor-to-ceiling silver poles. A sunken jacuzzi at one end of the sitting area awaits the overheated guest in need of a refreshing dip. A grey and silver bar with an undulating crushed glass ceiling and twirling silver lights completes a New York nightclub atmosphere.
Blue-lit neon stairs guide the weary upstairs where the huge master bedroom of 'wet and wild' is appropriately equipped with a circular jacuzzi as well as a glass-walled shower with a finely beaded curtain presumably a fig leaf sort of gesture towards modesty. It's not for the faint-hearted and certainly not designed to appeal to everyone, but neither are the prices. At a minimum price of Dh30,000 a night for a family villa, perhaps that's just as well.